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Does space exist without objects?

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That’s a good question to ponder overnight. From science writer George Musser:

Let’s Rethink Space

And in the past 20 years, I’ve witnessed a remarkable evolution in attitudes among physicists toward locality. In my career as a science writer and editor, I have had the privilege of talking to scientists from a wide range of communities—people who study everything from subatomic particles to black holes to the grand structure of the cosmos. Over and over, I heard some variant of: “Well, it’s weird, and I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen if for myself, but it looks like the world has just got to be nonlocal.”

To make sense of nonlocality, the first step is to invert our usual understanding of space. Physicists and philosophers can define space as the fact that the natural world has a very specific structure to it. Instead of saying that space brings order to the world, you can say that the world is ordered and space is a convenient notion for describing that order. We perceive that things affect one another in a certain way and, from that, we assign them locations in space. This structure has two important aspects. First, the influences that act on us are hierarchical. Some things affect us more than other things do, and from this variation we infer their distance. A weak effect means far apart; a strong effect implies proximity. The philosopher David Albert calls this definition of distance “interactive distance.” “What it means that the lion is close to me is that it might hurt me,” he says. This is the opposite of our usual mode of thinking. Rather than cry, “Watch out, the lion is close, it might pounce!” we exclaim, “Uh-oh, the lion might pounce on me; I guess it must be close.”

The second aspect of the spatial structure is that diverse influences are mutually consistent. If a rhinoceros is also able to hurt me, it must be close, too. And if both a lion and a rhino are able to hurt me, then the lion and rhino should also be able to hurt each other. (Indeed, my survival depends on it.) From this patterning of influences, we extract space. If the threat posed by predators couldn’t be expressed in terms of spatial distance, space would cease to be meaningful. A less morbid example is triangulation. The signal bars on your mobile phone indicate the strength of the phone’s connection to a cell tower and therefore your distance from that tower. In an emergency, the phone company can locate your phone by measuring your signal at several towers and using triangulation or the related technique of trilateration. The fact that the measurements converge on a single location is what it means for you to have a location.

The nice thing about defining space in terms of structure is that it sidesteps some of the long-running disputes over the nature of space. More.

See also: Arrow of time points to missing dark matter?

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4 Replies to “Does space exist without objects?

  1. 1
    Mapou says:

    I believe it was Immanuel Kant who said, “if space exists, where is it?”

    Space, of course, is a creation of our consciousness. It does not exist. This awesome 3-D vista you think you see in front of your eyes is an illusion, the mind’s interpretation of a bunch of firing neurons. This is the most solid proof of spirit/soul that exists, IMO. It is also the most powerful illusion there is. Yet, it can be demolished with simple logic.

    Kant understood this. So did Gottfried Leibniz. Descartes understood how easily the mind could be fooled. He understood that everything we experience could be an illusion. In the end, he could only be sure of one thing: “I think, therefore I am.” Sir Isaac Newton, for all his brilliance, never saw any of this. Forget Albert. He was the most clueless of them all. LOL

  2. 2
    Mapou says:

    Leibniz wrote to a friend:

    “Space is nothing but an order of the existence of things, observed as existing together; and therefore the fiction of a material universe, moving forward in an empty space cannot be admitted.”

    Leibniz apparently understood that the position of an object is not the property of an extrinsic space but an intrinsic property of the object. These properties, taken together, form an abstract order that he called space. I fully agree with Leibniz on this issue.
    Once we accept that there is no space, then it’s obvious that the 3D space that we experience is a creation of our consciousness. It’s the kind of magic that materialists continually rail against. Magic or not, it’s a beautiful thing.

  3. 3
    Jon Garvey says:

    @Mapou

    Is “illusion” the best analogy? I think I prefer the idea of a message and its interpretation: we are made with the physical and mental equipment to convert the mysterious “somethings” of reality into the context of space, and it works for every practical level, and many levels beyond the practical.

    It’s beautiful (in your words) because it’s a way – perhaps THE way – of understanding reality, not an illusion that fools us.

    One illustration might be a book, which to a reader is a whole world of meaning – a story, a complete textbook of chemistry, the wisdom to live by, or whatever. The “reality” is ink on paper, but if anything that’s an illusory understanding, because the writer always had a reader in view more than a materials scientist.

  4. 4
    mugwump3 says:

    think, therefore I am.” He was looking for a ground floor for self-evidential principles. He didn’t stop at solipsism; he worked upward and outward from his “I think…” Building upon this, he sought to prove logical foundations for what we take for granted all the time…for what we acknowledge without constantly doubting…

    He went on to develop a structure built on that “I think…” foundation, including reliability of the senses and the necessity of a Creator and a Creator’s designed order and laws. His was the self-imposed task of building certainty, not destroying it.

    Thank you for bringing him up…gonna go reread me some Descartes…quite enjoyable, if you’re a kindred philosophy nerd!!!

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